By now you’d have to be living under a rock not to know about Build-a-Bear’s promotional fiasco this week. The retailer had to play Scrooge as it was forced to shut down its “pay your age” promotion due to ridiculously long lines and crowd safety concerns. Extensive media coverage of “mobs of kids in tears” probably wasn’t what the company had in mind when it decided to promote its birthday program. CEO Sharon Price John described the premature shutdown as “heartbreaking.”
H.L. Mencken’s famous observation (actually a paraphrase of what he actually wrote in 1926), “You can never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” was perhaps a bit harsh. But we can’t dispute the American public’s taste for a bargain.
As a result, the marketing graveyard is littered with promotions that worked too well, because they grossly underestimated just how much demand was out there for their tempting offers. Many of these prior fiascos happened to food and beverage companies such as McDonald’s, Red Lobster and Dr. Pepper. Just last year, McDonald’s found itself in the crosshairs when it offered a limited-edition run of the Szechuan sauce it first invented when the film Mulan debuted in 1998 (the Adult Swim comedy Rick & Morty created a new generation of fans when it featured the sauce in its current season). Near-riots ensued and one fan even traded his car for a packet of the sauce. But McDonald’s was eventually able to assuage fans when it brought the sauce back on a wider scale this year. It’s not clear that Build-a-Bear will get a similar chance to make good on its broken promise.
The chance to connect with a cult TV show by consuming its’ “secret sauce” is one thing. But what motivates devoted parents to wait in line for up to nine hours to save somewhere south of $20 on a teddy bear? Sure, everyone likes to save a few bucks, but our thirst for these bargains runs deeper (cue the promos for Amazon’s Prime Day).
First and foremost, the Build-a-Bear fiasco reminds us that FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is not just an online phenomenon – though online behavior fuels the fire exponentially. We know that many American parents are, shall we say, a bit competitive. They’re not going to stand idly by while their kids’ friends snag a cool new teddy bear and their little prince or princess goes empty-handed. Some economists suggest that exciting new market entries can become “phantastic objects” that skew our sense of reason as we suspend logic to pursue them. After all, this is our kids we’re talking about here! And the relative scarcity of these furry finds of course enhances the need to procure one – now. (Suddenly, repressed memories from long ago of scurrying for what’s left of rare Beanie Babies to delight my daughters enter my mind.)
Providing the very best for our kids – sometimes at all costs – is an integral part of our parental self-concepts. The sacrifice involved in wasting a perfectly good day standing on a line ironically may enhance the experience for some grown-ups, who want to know that they went all out for the cause (and perhaps have a story to boast about when the ordeal is finally over).
We see a somewhat related phenomenon when we look at one of the drivers that motivates people to donate to charitable causes: These appeals work better when the donor has to suffer or sacrifice to a small degree (think about the hugely successful “ice-bucket challenge” that raised millions to combat A.L.S. Researchers call this the martyrdom effect.
Then, as with just about everything else, social media throws fuel on the fire. As the word spreads about a promotion like this, we can expect to see the process of social contagion kick in. This means that many moms and dads (and probably the kids themselves) are motivated to spread the news to others in their networks (probably after they are safely in line). As a result we see the related process of behavioral contagion where we repeat what those around us do. The event tends to feed on itself (think about fads like Pet Rocks) as it draws more and more people into its vortex. The flame will eventually burn out on its own, but in this case it burned so brightly that the sponsor was forced to step in and throw cold water on it.
Build-a-Bear’s intentions were good, to be sure. But especially in today’s cutthroat retail environment it can be lethal to overpromise. Now as never before your customers will hold you to your pledge, so failing to deliver is far worse than never making the offer at all.
Who knows, perhaps a small test of the promotion in one market might have prevented this public relations disaster. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. On the other hand, maybe we’ll have the chance to see if it’s possible to offer a bold promotion like this without the riot police. After all, the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain announced that it’s offering its own pay your age deal today only. No teddy bears allowed on the premises.
More Info: www.forbes.com